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Quentin Colborn

QC People Management Ltd


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Colborn’s Corner: Swine flu – a media frenzy


The media has been in a frenzy over swine flu and we are all being subjected to a government communication plan that includes telling us what to do when we sneeze. But what does it all mean at work? Quentin Colborn examines what HR professionals should be doing about swine flu.

Recently, if you say that you have just returned from a holiday in Mexico, you can expect people to take a rapid step backwards. But what do you do if you run a care home and someone says the same thing? How about sending your senior management team off on a teambuilding exercise where they will be cooped up in a single room for a couple of days? What are acceptable risks in this context?
I think that what this incident flags up to many is the inadequacy of contingency planning. This may be at governmental, local or business level. Of course the problems are intertwined. Suppose a local primary school is closed as a result of swine flu, a sensible precaution many parents would say. What happens though to the children who can no longer go to school? If many are employed in the local factory, how many will need to take time off, using their statutory rights, to arrange or provide alternative care?
What about relationships within the workplace? A few years ago there were fairly well documented cases of employees refusing to work with colleagues who they believed, or suspected, were HIV positive. This happened when perhaps prejudice was higher and knowledge of the illness was lower than now, but what if an employee refuses to work with a colleague on the grounds that the colleague may have swine flu? How many organisations have access to the appropriate information to communicate in such situations?
This type of scenario may be unlikely, but times like this lead to irrational behaviour, and with some of the sensationalist headlines people may not think as calmly as others may wish for. Indeed it was reported last week that absence levels increased by 18% when media coverage of swine flu increased.
So what can employers do about all this? First point must be to have a clear contingency plan to cover all sorts of disasters, not just flu. Over the past few years we have seen terrorist attacks, flooding, disease as well as the occasional snow shower. To my mind if a business does not have a robust contingency plan then that is a corporate failing for which the business leaders should be held accountable.
Also, a contingency plan should not be set in stone. Risks change, people move on, plans need to be updated. As an example of this, in our locality there was some flooding a few months ago and I contacted the local authority to ask for some sandbags and they told me their delivery point – it just happened that there was now a house built on that site which was therefore completely unsuitable – the plan hadn’t been updated.
Secondly, in situations of uncertainty a vacuum of information lead to rumour and potentially panic. Therefore a clear communication plan is essential. This can work on two levels: First, employees need to know for their own benefit what the risks and issues are and what they should do in a particular set of circumstances. Second, employees need to feel on top of matters so that they feel able to handle questions and queries that are directed to them.
To my mind, leaving someone in the frontline, perhaps in a call centre, but not giving them the tools to do the job is both unfair on them and also places the organisation in a bad light – and that can be to no-one’s benefit.
What has been your experience of swine flu issues? If none, do you think the whole issue has been blown out of all proportion? How resilient do you think your organisation’s contingency plan is – when was it last updated? Let us have your feedback so others can gain from your experience.
Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360, at or via [email protected]
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Quentin Colborn


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